SouthAsian of the Decade: Top Five Candidates

December 28, 2009

Who or what has made the most important contributions towards peaceful coexistence in South Asia?


Five candidates present themselves for such an award. Some of these have been chosen for their efforts over many years, and others, in keeping with the spirit of President Obama’s Nobel for Peace, based on their potential to do good. Each of them is also representative of a category of actors or initiatives that have made a difference.

1. The Neemrana Process

Since 1990, far from the hysteria of news headlines, twice a year, an unofficial bilateral meeting has been held between Indians and Pakistanis. The process takes its name from its original venue but is now held alternately in India and Pakistan. Participants include academics, mediapersons and perhaps most importantly, former bureaucrats and military officers. This enables the group to have both members of civil society who will bring new ideas, as well as former decision-makers who will keep the discussions realistic while providing a way to communicate with governments. It is more or less the same core group that carries over from one meeting to another, assuring that trust and continuity. After each meeting, held under the Chatham House Rule, a briefing is provided to governments. Many important peace initiatives, including the restoration of bus services linking Kashmiris on both sides of the border, are said to be Neemrana products.

The Neemrana process may have started it, but it would appear in retrospect that by the early 1990s, South Asia was truly ready for a number of people-to-people, civil society and institutional initiatives for interaction and cooperation. A miniscule sample:
Pakistan India People’s Forum
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) annual conflict transformation workshops
South Asian Forum for Human Rights

2. Himal Magazine

“Himal Southasian is Southasia’s first and only regional news and analysis magazine,” states the magazine’s website. Since 1987, Himal has covered political events, social issues, development debates and international relations in South Asia, with a team of correspondents and columnists from around the region.

Check out Himal’s Right-side Up map of South Asia.

Himal represents the potential of the South Asian intelligentsia to create and sustain a critical dialogue on issues that transcend interstates borders. Research carried out by some of the region’s think-tanks shows what is possible when there is financial and institutional support for what are necessarily large projects involving multiple institutions, researchers, cases and field-sites.

RCSS Research Awards, the Kodikara and Mahbub Ul Haq fellowships.
The Calcutta Research Group’s dialogues and conferences.

The most interesting development has been the development of online publications and portals as platforms for sharing information and ideas about common issues.

South Asian Media Net
South Asian Women in Media
Panos South Asia

The mainstream media remain hamstrung by commercial and political considerations and have been unable to match Himal or these online initiatives. Op-ed pages have all but disappeared and most papers do not have the resources to place correspondents across the region.

3. Zee Television
Satellite television channels entered South Asia in the early 1990s. Founded in 1992, Zee TV was India’s first general entertainment satellite channel, with its footprint covering a large swathe of Asian countries from the Emirates to Singapore. The reach and appeal of Zee’s programming laid the foundations for a regional popular culture built on film and non-film music, soap operas and game shows. The network grew to include news and entertainment channels in many of India’s major languages, which were beamed across provincial and national borders. Simultaneously, so did other networks.

Star Network
Sun Network

In the last decade, Zee’s entertainment channels have reached and reached out to members of the Indian diaspora; for instance, it has facilitated the participation of Indians from the UK, US and the Gulf to participate in its music contest shows. But pathbreaking from our point of view, in recent years, its highly-rated musical reality shows have included Pakistani participants as serious contenders and the perquisites of participation, including performing at shows and recording contracts, have extended to them. The result: across borders, people are viewing the programmes (and commercials); voting for their favourites through the mobile phone and Internet; and discussing the shows in open, unmoderated Internet fora. When the 26/11 Mumbai attack happened, Zee was hosting Pakistani participants for the 2008-09 season, providing a counterpoint from within popular culture to the popular mood.

Long before satellite television, SAARC decision-makers saw the potential of this medium to build bridges across the region. They started a series where cultural programmes from each country would be broadcast across the region.  Commercial radio had also presaged what satellite television has shown possible; the popular Radio Ceylon ‘Binaca Geetmala’ which played the top 10 hits from Hindi film music week after week for decades, was a great example.

4. The Internet

It is a cliché to say that the Internet has broken down communication barriers worldwide; why should South Asia be an exception? Growing connectivity and rapid growth in mobile phone networks is accelerating growth in this area beyond our imagination.

Let a very small sample of hypertext links do most of the talking in this instance.

Chowk, a portal where “all are welcome to read, write and think.”  Read their ‘about us.’
Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Friendship Forum on Facebook
WISCOMP ’07 on Facebook
ICT for Peacebuilding
Citizen Journalism: Third Eye from Bangladesh

The flip side of this nominee is of course, that those who would reinforce barriers and shatter the peace also use the Internet. But that’s the subject of another post.

5. The Indian Premier League

Cricket is a subcontinental passion, and that’s an understatement. Cricket is power, glamour and money. The Indian Premier League is a cricket competition based on the newest and shortest format of the classic sport, organised by the Board of Cricket Control in India, which is the richest cricket authority in the world. In the first two editions of the tournament, eight teams formed the league, each named for an Indian city. The players however, came from all over the world, and their presence in any side was secured by auction. The resultant spectacle: Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans playing for the same side, in one case called the ‘Mumbai Indians.’

The IPL tournament has not been untouched by the realities of South Asian international relations. The attacks on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan created genuine security concerns with regard to the second edition of the tournament.

But the IPL, cricket and potentially, any sports offer an opportunity to engage in different ways with each other. India and Pakistan have experienced this in cricket series after series; the contest on the field may be tense, intense, fraught; but those who cross the border to view matches receive a welcome that is like no other.

There should be a sixth candidate here, which now has acquired the elusive qualities of the Cheshire Cat and the Scarlet Pimpernel combined: Funding agencies. Through the 1990s and into the last decade, foundations such as Ford, MacArthur, Friedrich Ebert, Hans Seidel, etc. funded non-official dialogues; cross-border workshops; research collaborations between individuals and institutions across problematic borders, and large research projects on regional issues. They provided seed-money to institutions that have contributed to creating a climate where the worst provocations still do not quite escalate to all-out conflict. This funding is now drying up with foundations re-ordering their priorities. Unfortunately, South Asian individual and corporate philanthropy stops short of political initiatives, sticking largely to traditional charitable activities and extending at most to development and social welfare projects.  When we return to this list in December 2019, we will know what became of all these regional peacebuilding initiatives once the funding dried up.

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